by Beverly Setlowe
News helicopters circled from above. The throng of reporters, photographers and Wildlife Waystation volunteers and staff waited in anticipation while truckloads of heavy duty chain link and other caging materials were unloaded into the midst of the gathering crowd. Everyone stood by braced for one of the largest rescue operations ever undertaken by the Wildlife Waystation in its 26-year history. Suddenly, cheers of excitement arose in the fast-fading daylight. The expressions of concern were touched with tears of joy, relief and pride as they witnessed the first truck of the five-vehicle convoy with Martine Colette at the wheel. It was the end of a long journey.
The previous Friday, September 22, 1995 four trucks left the Waystation on an emergency rescue, each pulling a trailer and equipped with cages and equipment needed to safely transport an unknown number of large felines. The escape of several lions and ligers from an Idaho compound the previous Wednesday had made national news after eighteen of the free-roaming animals were destroyed by authorities. The big cats had mauled the owners of the Ligertown Game Farm near Lava Hot Springs, some 28-miles southeast of Pocatello. Although the owners survived the attack they did not reveal how many animals they had been keeping in their facility.
According to TV reports, fifty Sheriff’s Deputies and SWAT sniper teams “terminated” the escaped lions when they threatened the officers and the general safety of the area. No supplies or personnel were available to dart the animals with tranquilizers in this semi-rural region. Video coverage showed a ramshackle facility with enclosures constructed of chicken wire and plywood.
After USDA officials from Sacramento contacted Martine Colette on Thursday, the Waystation personnel went on alert as vehicles and other equipment were put into readiness for immediate departure - if the call for aid should come. The call came on Friday morning and within two hours, eight Waystation staff including Martine and Veterinarian Silvio Santinelli, were on their way to Idaho. Details were still sketchy as the rescuers embarked on their journey, unsure of what they might encounter when they reached their destination, more than 800 miles away. What they did know was that an unknown number of large exotic cats might need a new home
By Saturday, after the rescuers reached Ligertown, it was determined that twenty-four lions, one of which was only six days old, and three ligers would be making the trip to California. An additional truck was dispatched to Idaho to join the other four. On Sunday morning, a call went out to volunteers asking for help in preparing for the animals expected arrival, some time Monday after an all-night journey.
A large group of hardworking volunteers and staff began to clear out an area large enough to build the substantial enclosures needed for the big cats. Volunteers heeded the call and started construction the following day. They were standing by when masses of media people converged on the site to record the unique and moving homecoming of dedicated animal lovers and their frightened charges.
The exotic cats rescued from the squalid Idaho game farm were finally safe. The transfer cages were unloaded from the trucks and trailers amid the bright lights of TV cameras as construction continued, long into the night. The seven-day old bottle-fed female received ’round-the-clock care, while four, older cubs were placed in a ready enclosure for careful observation. The adult lions were introduced to their new enclosures a few days later. Though indiscriminate in-breeding and deplorable conditions had left the animals with some deformities and health problems, Martine stated that she believed, with proper diet and care, they should emerge OK from their ordeal.
“This is but one of the many situations the Wildlife Waystation has been called to handle,” said Martine. “I’m very grateful that we can help in situations of this magnitude. We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the generous support of our members and sponsors, who continue to make it possible for us to fulfill our mission: to never refuse help to any wild or exotic animal in need.